Current US presidential election rhetoric among Republican hopefuls may occasionally sound bizarre, especially on domestic issues. But when it comes to foreign policy, there is little to distinguish between candidates of either party. And nothing could be more illustrative of this than the comparison between what Obama had promised and what he has delivered since assuming office.
It is not simply promises such as closure of the Guantanamo prison, but an attitude that is reminiscent of Bush’s disdain for the international community. Drone attacks on Pakistan (and elsewhere) are now carried out routinely, even though human rights organisations have expressed doubts over its legality. In fact, there were nearly four times as many drone strikes in Pakistan during the first two years of the Obama Administration, as there were during the entire Bush Administration.
Current US policy dictates that drones are to be used only in failed states or in ‘sanctuaries’, where a state is either unwilling or unable to kill or capture targeted individuals. But the Defence Department insists that since the US is in a global war, it does not need to identify an immediate threat before targeting it. The State Department, more appreciative of diplomatic considerations, believes that the laws of war do not apply outside a theater of war and therefore, lethal force should only be used to prevent an eminent threat.
On other important foreign policy issues, such as Russia and China, Obama is closer to the views of his Republican predecessor, than that indicated during the campaign. Though he vowed to “reset” US policy towards Russia, some of his initiatives, such as placement of missiles close to Russia’s borders, have added to Moscow’s misgivings. More recently, Washington’s views on the forthcoming Russian presidential polls, as well as the US ambassador’s alleged support for opposition politicians, have added to the impression that the US is seeking to promote anti-Putin forces.
It is, however, the administration’s policy towards China which most echoes the recommendations of the neo-cons and thus represents a departure from US policy pursued since President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing 40 years ago. Moreover, the recently-released US Defence Strategy clearly signifies a well-thought-out plan to challenge China’s growing economic and political power. Both Obama and Secretary Clinton have publicly alluded to their fear that a strong and confident China poses a threat not only to Asia, but to US influence in the Pacific as well. Over the past year, Washington has been assiduously encouraging its friends in the region to accept the stationing of US troops on their territories and to increase defence budgets, all ostensibly to ‘contain’ China.
On Kashmir, Palestine and Iran, President Obama has resiled from positions taken during the campaign, under a combination of powerful domestic and foreign pressures. While Kashmir has simply disappeared from Washington’s radar, thanks to Indian lobbying; on Palestine, he appears to have abandoned thought of another initiative, convinced that there is simply no support for applying pressure on Israel. On Iran, the Obama Administration has been beating the drums of war, even though he had advocated a policy of engagement. His bitter criticism of his predecessor for what he claimed was a “war of choice” in Iraq has been forgotten, with no attempt to temper the growing crescendo for a surgical strike on Iran that could lead to another conflict, at a time when the US has been in war for the longest period in its history, with more than 6,300 troops killed and an estimated $3 trillion lost!
Given his life experience, Obama’s pronouncements had led to expectations of change, especially in foreign policy. In reality, he has hewed close to many of his predecessor’s controversial policies, demonstrating that when it comes to national security issues, it is the defence and intelligence establishment, as in most countries, which determines priorities.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th, 2012.